ALBUQUERQUE — Solar power is one of those things that's always just around the corner. Just a few more technical advances over here, and a little government help over there, and we'll have solved all our energy and pollution problems once and for all. It seems like we've been hearing that for 30 years now.
So, at the risk of ridicule, I'm here to tell you that widespread use of solar power is just around the corner. Rooftops across California will be turned into power plants by the hundreds of thousands. The L.A. Department of Water & Power, now reeling from a radical cost-cutting proposal, will be a national leader.
And with a little luck, ambition and good policymaking, Los Angeles will be the center of a major new industry.
OK, I admit, I may just be suffering the effects of a little brainwashing after attending a conference here last week called Utility PV Experience. It's the event where the small cadre of utility industry types who are interested in "renewables" in general and photovoltaics, or "PV," in particular come to trade notes. Chastened by years of unfulfilled promises, they err toward the modest in their predictions.
But I have to say I was startled by just how close photovoltaic solar cells--slabs of treated silicon that turn sunlight directly into electricity--are to being an economically competitive source of power. And that's without figuring in a few minor side benefits, like prevention of global warming.
At first blush, the numbers don't really look all that promising. Price comparisons for electricity are a little tricky, since there are wide variations in the cost and the price of current sources, but roughly speaking it still costs at least three times as much to produce electricity from PV cells as from conventional domestic power sources.
That sounds like a huge differential. But in many parts of the world, solar cells compete not with the local electric grid but with nothing at all. Because they can be put anywhere, require virtually no maintenance and last for decades, PV systems are rapidly becoming a major power source in many parts of the developing world.
In Europe and Japan, moreover, energy costs are far higher than in the United States, sometimes three to four times higher. Thus gray, cloudy Germany is a leader in PV power. (That was my first clue that sunny SoCal must be missing something.)
Even in the United States, land of ubiquitous low-cost energy, there are lots of places where it's hard to string power lines. People living "off the grid" in the desert or the north woods, or telephone companies looking to power highway call boxes or remote cellular transmission sites, for example, are customers for PV too.
This is important, because these kinds of applications have over the last decade created a robust solar cell industry, one that officials say is growing 15% to 20% per year and now has sales of about $1 billion annually.
While solar power was once synonymous with dubious tax credits and other kinds of government subsidies, it's now a real business. To cite just one example, industry pioneer Siemens Solar--formerly Arco Solar--now employs 300 people at its factory in Camarillo and is in the midst of an expansion that will increase capacity by 50%.
All of this is crucial, because volume production promises to have an immense impact on cost. The processes for producing solar cells are in many ways similar to those used for making computer chips: Silicon ingots are sliced into thin wafers, "doped" with other chemicals, and laced with a conducting metal to draw off the power.
High volume makes it possible to transform an artisanal process into a mass-production one, bringing costs down substantially. Thomas Vonderhaar, vice president of BP Solar--which is ramping up production at a factory in Fairfield, Calif.--says the costs have declined by seven to eight times over the last two decades.
Some advances on the basic technology are also bringing costs down. A new type of cell known as "thin film," which spreads a very thin sheet of active material on a piece of glass, promises to be much cheaper to produce, though it's less efficient than silicon. Some big companies, notably Enron, believe thin film will be cheap enough to build large solar-power-generating plants that will be cost-competitive with other types of fuel.
Entrepreneurs are getting into the game too. A company called Evergreen Solar in Waltham, Mass., for example, is using technology licensed from an MIT professor to produce low-cost solar panels with a novel liquid silicon process.
So what does all this mean for the regular local power user? Consider a program that's been underway since 1993 at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the second-largest municipal utility in California. Under a program called PV Pioneers, SMUD has installed rooftop PV systems on 420 houses, with participating residents paying a $4-a-month surcharge.